First Two Games Go To the Cards

Sometimes there is that moment.

In an eerily familiar parallel, St Louis went into Wrigley Field in mid-September of 2017 (Friday, the fifteenth, to be exact).  In this instance, it was the Cardinals who were three games behind.  That year – as with this year – they would play Chicago 7 times over the last 12 games of the season, three in Chicago (that year) and four in St Louis.  Then, as now, the enormity of the series was palpable.

In 2017, Carlos Martinez was the Cardinals’ ace starter, and matched against ex-Cardinal John Lackey in the opening game.  Carlos almost could not have been better.  Through four innings, he allowed 1 run on 3 hits with no walks and 5 strikeouts.

But then came that moment.  Top of the fifth.  Martinez, himself, is at the plate, with runners at first and second and two outs.  Lackey believes his 2-2 pitch has Carlos struck out, and starts heading back to the bench.  But umpire Jordan Baker calls it ball three, and Lackey’s loose grip on his emotions begins to unravel.

When John looped a hanging slider over the plate on 3-2, Carlos shot it into center field for the single that gave St Louis a crucial 2-1 lead.  And John Lackey lost it.

With the Wrigley crowd urging him on, Lackey and catcher Willson Contreras verbally landed on Baker – and Contreras needed to be restrained or he may well have physically landed on him.  In the altercation, in fact, Contreras slammed his mask into the turf so hard that it hit the umpire.  Apparently, there is no suspension for that sort of thing, because Willson was back in the lineup the next day.

But he and Lackey were certainly done for that afternoon, both ejected.  But that mattered little.  Like a hockey team after a fight, the Cubs were aroused.

The next time the top of the order came up in the sixth, they took Martinez down.

Three singles and two walks pushed the baby bears back in front 3-2, with the bases still loaded and just one out.  Javier Baez’ nubber back to the mound might have been the double-play that would staunch the bleeding, leaving the Cards still hanging in the game.

But Carlos couldn’t get a handle on the ball.  Everyone was safe – and the next thing anyone knew, Chicago had thrown 7 runs on the board, on their way to a convincing 8-2 victory (box score).

That was the game and the moment when the character gap between these two teams was clearly first evident.  The separation here was more than talent.  Chicago basically took that game away from the visiting Cardinals.  For that game and the rest of the weekend, the team from Chicago was consistently mentally tougher.

Chicago went on to sweep the three games – leaving the Cardinal season on life support.  They finished the job a week later, when they won three of the four in St Louis to bury the birds – who ended the season nine games behind.

The 2018 team was never really close enough to threaten, but – up until last night – the 2019 season carried that same vibe.  The not-tough-enough Cardinals fading before the Cubs.  It showed in general as Chicago swept the first two series in Wrigley this year – especially this game from June 8 – an embarrassing affair, in which the Cards jumped on the Cubs with four in the first, never scored again, and watched Chicago waltz off with a 9-4 win.

That loss left St Louis 4.5 games behind Chicago.

Fast-forward to Thursday night.  Jack Flaherty – pitching in the biggest game of his life – gives St Louis 8 brilliant innings, and hands off a 4-1 lead to the bullpen – or rather to Carlos Martinez again, now re-purposed as the Cardinal closer.

And it’s nearly the same story – without all the Lackey ejection drama.  A walk, a single and a double shave the Cardinal lead to 4-2.  There is one out, and the tying runs are on second and third.  This time it is Contreras dribbling the ball in between the mound and third base.  Martinez can’t make the play again (although this a much tougher play) and it’s a one-run game with the tying run at third.

But it is at this precise moment that the script changes – and with it, perhaps, the fortunes of these two franchises.

Andrew Miller enters to pitch to Jason Heyward who slaps the 0-1 pitch to the right side.  Off the bat, it looks like a base hit, but Cardinal second baseman Tommy Edman sticks a glove out there, gathers the ball in, keeps his feet, and throws out Heyward.  The tying run scores, but at the expense of the second out.  Miller then retires Nico Hoerner on a flyball.

Seven pitches into the top of the tenth, Matt Carpenter – struggling through the toughest year of his career – delivers what is arguably the biggest hit of the season as he drives Craig Kimbrel’s fastball deep over the center field wall.  And all of a sudden the team from St Louis had out-toughed the bullies from the north side (box score).

They followed that up Friday afternoon with another gritty 2-1 win.

On Monday, we will assess the series and look at all the numbers.  But the first two games of this set are not about the numbers.  These two games have been about the narrowing of the character gap.  The heroes here have been a satisfying blend of old (Carpenter and Yadier Molina) and new (Flaherty, Edman and Giovanny Gallegos).

St Louis now has its foot firmly on the neck of its ancient rival.  The Cubs are five back (in the division) with just 8 games to play.  Of course, five of those games are against St Louis.  When Milwaukee was in town earlier this month, the Cards had their foot on the neck of the Brewers, but couldn’t finish them off (and they may live to regret that).  With the first two games of this series in their win column, the Cards could do themselves a world of good – as well as turning over a new page in this rivalry – if they can finish these guys off (like they did to us in 2017).

NFL Week Two:

Bye Bye to Ben and Brees

Both plays looked so innocuous.

In the first half of the Seattle-Pittsburgh game (gamebook) (summary), Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson was sacked 4 times, and bounced right along.  On their third offensive snap of the game, Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down in the arms of Branden Jackson for a seven-yard loss.  This would be the only quarterback sack that Seattle would achieve on this afternoon.

It was the 503rd time that Big Ben was sacked in his career.  And it would be his last for 2019.  He came up shaking his right elbow.  Ben played the entire rest of the half, throwing the ball fifteen times and grasping that elbow after almost every one of those throws.  He is now facing elbow surgery and is done for the year.

A few hours later in Los Angeles, Drew Brees was trying to step up in the pocket against the Rams.  Tripping over an offensive lineman, Los Angeles’ Aaron Donald stretched out his massive hand and closed it around Brees’ just after the pass got off.

Again, the play looked harmless enough.  But somewhere in the brief contact, Drew’s ulnar collateral ligament gave way.  Surgery has corrected the damage, but Drew will need six to eight weeks to recover.

Ben and Drew have been pillars in the NFL, now for about 15 years.  They have combined for 3 Super Bowl titles, 131,390 passing yards, and 885 touchdown passes.  So when both go down on the same afternoon, it’s headline worthy.

Rudolph to the Rescue

The Steelers will now hand the reigns to Mason Rudolph.  A third-round pick out of Oklahoma State back in 2018, Rudolph saw his first NFL action in Sunday’s second half.  He didn’t look cowed at all or overmatched, completing 12 of 19 for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns, while suffering an interception that wasn’t his fault.

The Steelers came up just short, 26-28.  In the end, it was the unstoppable Wilson, who kept answering the Steeler scoring drives.  Russell was an impressive 14 for 16 (87.5%) in the second half, on his way to another three-touchdown performance.

Seattle unveiled an impressive newcomer of their own in receiver D.K. Metcalf.  A second-round pick out of Mississippi, Metcalf added 3 catches for 61 yards and his first career touchdown after catching 4 passes for 89 yards in the opener against Cincinnati.  DK is listed as 6-4, and it looks like about five feet of that is his legs.

Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water

The Saints have gone in a different direction to plug their hole at quarterback.  They will turn to veteran Teddy Bridgewater.  Teddy was last seen leading Minnesota to the playoffs in 2015 before injuries of his own sidelined him for the next two years.

After Brees left the game, the New Orleans offense dried up.  The Saint defense held them in the game for a half (the Rams led at intermission by only 6-3), but couldn’t hold them off indefinitely. LA punched home three second half touchdowns, and won convincingly, 27-9 (gamebook) (summary).

Certainly losing your starting quarterback doesn’t help your chances.  This, though, would have been a tough victory for the Saints regardless.  The Ram defense – in case anyone asks you – is for real.  They stuffed an elite running game in New Orleans.  The Saints managed 19 rushing yards (on 12 attempts) in the first half, and finished the day with 57 yards and a 2.9 average.  After Alvin Kamara racked up 140 scrimmage yards in the second half against Houston, Los Angeles limited him to 60 for the game.

Brees might have been able to conjure up some magic had he stayed in, but this game mostly belonged to the Ram defensive line.

Of note, though, is the fact that the officials once again cost New Orleans a touchdown.  LA’s only turnover of the game was a sack-fumble when Trey Hendrickson stripped the ball out of Jared Goff’s hands.  Inexplicably, the play was originally ruled an incomplete pass, although Jared’s hand was clearly empty as he completed his throwing motion.

On the other end of that fumble was Saint defensive lineman Cameron Jordan, who returned the fumble 87 yards for the score that should have given the Saints the lead.  On review, the call was changed to a fumble, and the Saints were given the ball.  But since the whistle blew, the return was wiped out.

On the ensuing drive, New Orleans pushed the ball almost to mid-field and then went for it on fourth-and-one (calling a running play).  As dominant as the Ram defensive line was on this afternoon, that was probably not he call to make.

Run Commitment in AFC South

Watching the Indianapolis Colts outlast the Tennessee Titans, 19-17 (gamebook) (summary), was like watching the same team in two different jerseys.  The early read on both these teams is pretty much the same.  Both have tough defenses, both are committed to running the football, and neither passing game is very scary.

In the game, the Colts and Titans combined to run the ball 36 times for 193 yards (5.4 per rush) in the second half alone.  In a losing effort, Titans’ quarterback Marcus Mariota threw the ball only 28 times – something rarely seen in the modern era.

Adventures in Officiating

Was there a second left, or not?

Well, first, I suppose, we need to talk about the roughing the passer penalty.

Like the Rams-Saints contest, the Chicago Bears and the Denver Broncos also went into the half at 6-3 – a half in which neither team even made it into the red zone.

But now, playing just their second game of the season – at high altitude and in 87 degree heat – the vaunted Chicago defense began to wilt as Denver’s new quarterback – Joe Flacco – set up for an oppressive 33 pass plays.

Held to just 129 first half yards, Denver ran an exhausting 45 second half plays at the Bear defense for 243 yards while controlling the ball for 17:51 of those last 30 minutes.

Trailing 13-6 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Broncos almost sealed the game with a 16-play, 84-yard, 7:57 drive that reached the Chicago 2-yard line. 

But cornerback Kyle Fuller out-fought receiver Emmanuel Sanders and intercepted Flacco’s pass in the end zone.

Undaunted, Denver – on its last possession of the game – marched 62 yards in 12 plays for what seemed to be the game-winning touchdown (a seven-yard pass to Sanders).

The two teams would combine to convert just 2 of 12 third-down opportunities in the second half, but they would combine to go 4-for-4 on fourth-down.  Twice on what they thought was their game-winning drive, Denver went for it on fourth down – including a fourth-and-ten at midfield.  So it was no surprise that they would go for (and earn) two points after their touchdown.

Trailing, now, 14-13, Chicago would begin on their own 25 with 31 seconds left in the game and just 1 timeout.  To this point of the contest, the Bear offense had been as moribund in the second half as it was in the first.  After 141 yards of total offense over the first two quarters, as they set up for the first play of the final drive of the game, they had managed just 102 second half yards.  Their lone play of the game (to that point) of over 20 yards was a 46-yard run by Cordarrelle Patterson, setting up Chicago’s only touchdown of the day.

But the game’s complexion changed on the very first play of the drive.  Rolling to his right, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky dumped off a short pass to Trey Burton.  As he was in the act of throwing the football, Bronco linebacker Bradley Chubb wrapped him up and dropped him.  For his effort, in what seemed for all the world like a completely legal play, he drew the roughing the passer penalty that would cost Denver the game.

The penalty yards were added to the passing yards, and that – with the clock stoppage that came after the penalty – set the Bears up suddenly at their own 45 with 24 seconds and still one timeout left.

Three incompletions and a pre-snap penalty later, and things looked less rosy of the Bears.  They still had their timeout, but faced fourth and 15 from their own 40 with 9 seconds left.

For an agonizing eternity, Trubisky hung in the pocket waiting for someone to uncover.  At seemingly the last second, Allen Robinson worked his way into a crease in the zone, 25-yards up the field.  I think that the Bears began calling for the timeout as soon as Mitch released the throw.  As Robinson hit the turf on the Denver 35-yard line, the clock showed all zeros.

But the officials determined that there was still one second left on the clock, meaning that they would have had to have award the timeout in the very heartbeat that Robinson’s knee hit the turf.

A slow motion replay revealed that there was at least a partial second left at the moment the knee hit.  Still, this would constitute the fastest awarded timeout I have ever seen.

New Bear kicker Eddy Pineiro,/a> then kicked the winning field goal (no chip shot at 53 yards) and the Broncos start their season 0-2 (summary). The two plays (Patterson’s 46-yard run and Robinson’s 25-yard reception) represented over 57% of Chicago’s total offense in the second half.

It is understandable if Denver felt itself poorly used by the officiating crew.  It certainly seemed like they made a concerted effort to give Chicago every opportunity to win the game.

The New Orleans Saints, of course, can empathize.  And then some.

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